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Undercover Fox

Ask typical area viewers to list the most influential figures in Denver TV, and you'll probably wind up with a roster filled with on-air talent. In truth, general managers have the real clout. Channel 9's Roger Ogden has assembled so strong a news organization that the comings and goings of pretty faces seldom threaten his outlet's popularity ("Weighing Anchors," April 10). As for Ogden's crosstown peers -- Channel 2's Derek Dalton, Channel 4's Walt DeHaven and Channel 7's Cindy Velasquez -- they're ultimately responsible for the success or failure of their respective stations, and act accordingly.

By this measure, Bill Schneider, the recently named vice president and general manager of Channel 31, is already an extremely significant person on the local broadcasting landscape, despite having gotten here mere months ago. After all, he inherited a notably popular signature program. The outlet's 9 p.m. newscast, launched in July 2000 and anchored by Ron Zappolo and Libby Weaver, clobbered Channel 2, its most direct competitor, in the February sweeps, and earned bigger ratings in its time slot than did Channel 7 at 10 p.m.

Nonetheless, Schneider's profile since he hit town has been subterranean. Aside from a blurb or two that Denver publications printed in January, he's received virtually no attention -- and that appears to be fine by him. He's in a powerful position vis-à-vis the Denver media, but he seems determined to do his business in the shadows.

Within the halls of Channel 31, however, Schneider is making his presence felt in ways some of his charges haven't enjoyed. In mid-April, Bob Goosmann, recently named the market's top weather predictor by the Colorado Broadcasters Association and this paper, sent an e-mail to Fox staffers announcing that he would be leaving the station as of May 21, the date his current deal expires. Goosmann doesn't mention Schneider's name when explaining why he's cutting the tether prior to lining up another gig, but he comes close. In his opinion, contract-renewal negotiations were progressing well under previous general manager Bob Simone before going into a four-wheel skid earlier this year -- a time period that just happens to coincide with Schneider's arrival.

Goosmann is joining other staffers who've split from Channel 31 of late. Robert Thompson, one of the station's most solid reporters, and veteran sportscaster Les Shapiro, a far stronger anchor than number-one man David Treadwell, weren't offered new contracts, and sources say a few others on the Fox team chose to leave on their own -- among them Schneider's own secretary. In addition, various insiders contacted by Westword complain about the workplace atmosphere on Schneider's watch. Several are unhappy about increased scrutiny of online activity, including the sporadic blocking of benign Web sites, as well as building-security measures that at one point discouraged personnel from admitting interviewees or members of their own family. There's also the matter of Schneider's personal style. Whereas Simone is universally described as a "people person" who was extremely accessible and enjoyed visiting the newsroom, Schneider is labeled by some as a comparatively standoffish fellow who's interested in the news operation only insofar as it affects the bottom line.

Schneider's response to these claims is unknown. Last week, voice-mail messages requesting interviews were left for Schneider, local Fox public-relations specialist Clyde Becker, and Ivey Van Allen, a California-based media-relations veep who's charged with filtering press inquiries to the more than thirty stations owned and operated by Fox -- a layer of bureaucracy and control that's unique among Denver TV stations. Of this trio, only Van Allen replied. She asked about the focus of questions, and after being told it dealt primarily with departing employees such as Goosmann and the morale of those who remain, she promised to check with Schneider to see if he had any comments. The next day, she called back to say that he didn't.

Fortunately, Schneider proved moderately more loquacious on a previous occasion. Yet setting up this conversation was hardly as easy as reaching Ogden, who often answers his own phone. Following the mid-January announcement of Schneider's hiring, an interview request left for Becker was forwarded to Van Allen. Shortly thereafter, Van Allen phoned to say that while Schneider wasn't averse to a conversation, he wanted to wait a month to "get his feet wet." Once that amount of time had passed, several more calls were placed over a two-week period, to little result. Only after another message was left for Van Allen -- this one asking if Schneider should be identified in a future column item as having declined to speak -- was any progress made. Within hours, Van Allen rang back to say that Schneider was on the line with her at that very instant and would chat then, or perhaps not at all. During the impromptu twenty-minute interview, Van Allen stayed connected, listening to Schneider's answers and sometimes aiming them in new directions with observations of her own.

Considering these fairly bizarre conditions, it's no surprise that Schneider, who came across as pleasant but somewhat diffident, stuck to the vaguest of generalities. "From my perspective, I'm not here to make news within the news," he said. "It's not really important who's sitting in the GM's office."

As it turns out, Simone, Schneider's predecessor, took much the same stance, generally treating the public eye like a peeping Tom. While at Channel 31, he referred all interview requests from Westword to others at the station and didn't respond to queries for this article. Practically the only time he stepped out front was when he gave a tour of the new Channel 31 facility, whose construction he oversaw, to the Denver Post's Joanne Ostrow -- but even then, he shunned the spotlight. "Simone continually credits the staff, preferring to stay in the background," Ostrow wrote.

For his combination of achievement and reticence, Simone was rewarded with a move to WTXF-TV in Philadelphia, the country's fourth-largest television market (Denver is in eighteenth place). The station definitely needs someone who's good at avoiding headlines, since it earned poisonous publicity in the Philadelphia Inquirer and other newspapers under general manager Roger LaMay, whom Simone replaced, during 2002. Early that year, LaMay chose not to renew the contract of anchor Rich Noonan in apparent reaction to anemic ratings. Then, after Noonan allegedly made negative remarks during a newscast, he was disappeared weeks ahead of schedule, robbing him of the chance to offer an on-camera farewell. Come summertime, Noonan reacted by filing a complaint with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, arguing that he was left on the roadside because he is white. He claimed management had decided that an all-Caucasian news team was a liability in a city as diverse as Philadelphia; Dave Huddleston, who replaced Noonan, is African-American.

Simone's trip east opened up a position in Denver for Schneider, who made his reputation working in sales capacities for Turner Broadcasting and Fox Sports Net South; the latter is a sister service of Fox Sports Rocky Mountain, a fast-growing local cable operation that Schneider also oversees. During the Van Allen-monitored interview, Schneider praised FSRM ("We have a very good sportscast, and the ratings are pretty remarkable") and Channel 31's late news ("The ratings show the relevance of the news product to the viewers in Denver and shows the strength of Fox's prime time as a lead-in"), but he steered clear of hints about future moves. Although the station seems to sponsor fewer charity functions and internal initiatives than its primary rivals -- all of which recognize the promotional value of events like the 9Health Fair -- Schneider said Channel 31 was actually "very involved" in the community and would assess further projects on a one-by-one basis. Likewise, he was mum about the possibility of expanding the news operation into the morning or afternoon hours, declaring only that "we're going to continue to evaluate opportunities in the marketplace as we see them." In respect to changes viewers might be seeing at 9 p.m., he denied that any were in the offing. "Nothing's broken here," he maintained.

That certainly was the case with Goosmann. He got off to a bumpy start in Denver, where he was saddled with a silly, and soon discarded, "On-Target Weather" feature that made his prognostications seem suspect even when they were close to the mark. But as time marched on, he won friends and influenced people thanks to the honesty of his presentations -- he never pretended to be an all-seeing weather god -- and his accuracy when it really counted. A couple of days before the March blizzard that struck Denver, Goosmann predicted a storm of historic proportions. He didn't become the punchline of talk-radio jokes for a very good reason: Those historic proportions developed just as he said they would.

What didn't materialize were the sort of contract talks Goosmann had hoped for. He knew the situation was grim when the station didn't bother promoting his first-place finish at the March 29 Colorado Broadcasters Association ceremony. "That was something I was very proud of," he says, "and I would think they'd want to put together something that let viewers know: 'Our employee won a very prestigious award.' It was their decision not to, which is fine, but it was disappointing to me."

He's equally distressed about the prospect of bidding farewell to co-workers and potentially leaving an area that he loves for a wide variety of reasons, not the least of which is the challenge presented by forecasting in the region. "I thought long and hard about the decision, because I have a family, a mortgage and car payments, like everyone else out there," he allows. "I had to really look at the pros and cons."

Will Goosmann share the options he debated? "I'd rather not," he says.

Because of Goosmann's silence, it's impossible to know how much of a role Schneider played in his choice -- and the top Fox isn't volunteering any guesses. No matter how much authority he wields behind the scenes, he prefers to be viewed as an interchangeable cog in the Channel 31 machine. As he put it, "We have 143 employees here, and Bill Schneider is one of them."

Not ready for his close-up: On April 7, shortly after the announcement that the Rocky Mountain News had earned a breaking-news-photography Pulitzer Prize for shots of last summer's Colorado wildfires, staffers broke out the bubbly -- and last week, yet another bash was staged. News editor/publisher/president John Temple feted each photog on the victorious squad by name, supplementing his kudos with $1,000 bonuses. Special Pulitzer keepsakes are also in the works.

Obviously, there's much cause for joy among the shutterbugs -- yet freelancer Matt Inden, whose image of a slurry bomber falling apart in midair near Pinewood Springs last July was included in the Pulitzer package, feels conflicting emotions. He was paid well by the Rocky for his snapshots (he won't say how much) and has won numerous honors, including a best-in-show bauble from the Colorado Associated Press Editors and Reporters contest, plus first places in spot news at the Atlanta Photojournalism Seminar and the National Headliner Awards. These credits could help him land a plum job at a newspaper, and since he graduated from the Colorado Institute of Art in December, gainful employment might be nice. Inden, though, isn't sure he wants to go into traditional newspaper journalism, and he can't contemplate the good things his photos have brought him without also thinking about the two pilots who died right before his eyes. Even now, he speaks about that scorching day and its aftermath with great difficulty.

An outdoors-lover from Wilmington, Delaware, who moved to Colorado in the late '90s, Inden didn't set out to be a news photographer. When he first starting taking pictures seriously, he concentrated on landscape shots. He's also a writer, and likes the idea of combining words and images in ways that complement each other. This idea inspired him to head to Pinewood Springs with his digital Nikon in tow after hearing about the fire. "I was there maybe an hour and a half or so, just kind of tracking the helicopters and planes," he recalls. "When the accident happened, I guess it was just reacting. I kind of knew what was going on and kind of didn't know. For a couple minutes afterward, I was standing on the side of the road, stunned." The notion that the photos might be newsworthy didn't occur to him at first: "It was a friend of mine who thought of that. He said I had to call somebody about it -- and people were interested."

That's putting it mildly. But Inden is still ambivalent about the subsequent acclaim. "It's weird to me," he says haltingly. "I don't know if [my photos] were for right or wrong."

To make matters that much more awkward, there's been a whispering campaign in some quarters questioning the ethics of including Inden's work in the News's Pulitzer submission. After all, one of his shots was published in the Boulder Daily Camera and aired on Channel 4, a Rocky partner, before any of them appeared in the News. Moreover, the Pulitzer is credited to the paper's staff, of which Inden is not a member. The closest he came to this status was an after-the-fact internship that he remembers as being quite brief. "I was busy with school at the time, so I didn't have a lot of time to give toward it," he says.

No one at the News refutes these particulars; indeed, most of them were included in a July 20, 2002, article about Inden that ran alongside a photo sequence showing the air tanker breaking up. Then again, nothing that took place seems to be a technical violation of Pulitzer rules. For one thing, the News, which purchased the rights to Inden's photos when given the chance, forwarded to the Pulitzer committee a different shot than the one published first in the Camera. "We ran the photo that appeared in the Camera small later on, but that wasn't the best image. We submitted the best one," Temple says. "It was ours exclusively." Because the Camera also ran a series of Inden shots (four in total) on July 20, complete with a credit line reading "Special to the Camera," the exclusivity claim can be debated. Still, the News's submission wasn't among these photos, either. It's ever so slightly different -- perhaps a frame or two away.

On top of that, the Pulitzers don't prohibit newspapers from including photos purchased from freelancers in a staff submission. Sig Gissler, the administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes, says the New York Times collective that won the Pulitzer for its 9/11 photos consisted of nine staffers and five freelancers. He adds that the Times also earned a Pulitzer in 1994 for a single image taken by late South African freelance photojournalist Kevin Carter. Titled "Waiting Game," it pictured a desperately ill Sudanese child with a vulture in the background.

"It's no different than a stringer contributing to a story, or a witness to an incident writing something that's included in a package," Gissler says. "The main thing is that it's published by the paper that's responsible for the work. Then there's no problem with submitting it as part of the paper's entry."

Such details haven't entirely squelched gossip about the News's latest Pulitzer -- rumors so bothersome to Janet Reeves, the paper's director of photography, that she wouldn't discuss them here. For his part, Temple doesn't want a mini-controversy to overshadow the efforts of other contributing photographers, whose work was certainly prize-worthy. Neither does he wish to imply that the News has taken Inden for granted. He says the paper helped him sell some of the images to Sygma, a photo syndicator, provided him with the internship, and invited him to award presentations. Temple sees Inden as "really an amazing story -- a guy who, with one series of photographs that he got because he was in the right place at the right time, has earned national recognition."

Inden has nothing but compliments for the News ("It's been a good relationship, and they've been very friendly"), but he's not sure he's cut out for a life on the daily grind. "It would be ideal if I could do magazine work, where things could be more intimate and I could spend a week or a month on something.

"Whatever happens," says this member of the Pulitzer Prize-winning team, "I've got a lot to learn."

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